The Dirty Dozen

‘Small’ beers by big breweries.

You order a tasting flight of five one-of-a-kind ales at a historic brewery in downtown Toronto. Every one is a gem. Nice! At home, you want to find out more about this new craft brewery, but a couple of Google searches reveals they’re owned by—gasp—Molson! How can that be?

Click for a tour of the beers.  (Photo by Liam Mogan)

Click for a tour of the beers. (Photo by Liam Mogan)

Allow us to explain. Bummed by flat sales of their easier-drinking, ice-cold lagers, the world’s biggest brewers have begun sweating small suds in a big way. For at least a decade, beer sales have been losing ground to wine, from 52% market share in 2000 to 45% last year. However, sales of “craft beer” have lately been enjoying double-digit growth.

So is it any surprise big brewers are making a practice of either buying microbreweries outright (as Sleeman did with Quebec’s Unibroue in 2004, only to be swallowed by Sapporo in 2006) or, more recently, by launching their own “craft breweries” (as Moosehead did when it launched Brampton, Ont.–based Hop City in 2009).

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“Thirty years ago, people had one beer as their go-to,” explains Ian Freedman, president of Six Pints Specialty Beer Co., a.k.a. Molson Coors Canada’s craft beer division. “Now, thanks to more adventurous palettes and more craft beer companies giving consumers more choice, people are reaching for a wider circle of brands.”

Six Pints’ division has a “much more craft-beer-like culture than Molson,” says Freedman, noting that being small and nimble allows them to launch new products quickly. The division houses its microbrewery acquisitions—Ontario’s Creemore Brewing Co. and Vancouver’s Granville Island Brewing Co. among them—as well as it’s very own teaching microbrewery, the Beer Academy, in downtown Toronto.

But, like other “big craft” brands, Six Pints’ corporate roots aren’t disclosed on its website or its bottles. (Indeed, the home page suggests it’s “a group of beer enthusiasts on a mission to promote the love of beer across Canada.”) So here’s the real question: Should consumers be outraged? Charlie Papazian, president of the U.S. independent Brewer’s Association, thinks so. In a newspaper editorial, he called out big brewers for marketing their “faux-craft beers” as though they were from locally owned breweries.

Meanwhile, Liam McKenna, brewmaster at St. John’s YellowBelly Brewery, has a more zen-like position: “All beer is good beer,” he says. “Size does not dictate passion. I’d rather have my local brewery owned by another brewery than a bank.”

Rolling Rock
Rolling Rock Extra Pale lager
Owner: AB InBev

Launched in 1939 by the Latrobe Brewing Co., Rolling Rock has a unique flavour: dimethyl sulphide, a compound that lends aromas of cooked cabbage to beer. Originally a brewing error, it’s now the beer’s signature flavour.

$2.35/473 ml can

Eye of the Hawk
Mendocino Eye of the Hawk Ale
Owner: UB Group

Had Kingfisher? That’s another of India-based UB Group’s beers. This 8% ale packs a wallop of caramel and burnt marshmallow to its boozy punch—one bottle and you’ll be feeling just fine, thank you.

$4.99/650 ml bottle

Magic Hat
Magic Hat #9
Owner: Cerveceria Costa Rica

Cerveceria is one of the world’s largest independent brewers. Last year, it paid $388 million for a portfolio that included the apricot-extract-spiked Magic Hat.

$13.50/six bottle

Blue Moon
Blue Moon Belgian White
Owner: MillerCoors

When MillerCoors moved the brewing of Blue Moon from Colorado to Montreal, it also threw a new label on it: Rickard’s White. Same snappy notes of coriander up front and same soft, peach haze.

$22.75/12 bottles

Beer Academy Kölsch
Six Pints beer academy Kölsch
Owner: Molson Coors

This Toronto brewpub was opened by Molson’s craft beer arm in June 2012. The honey-coloured Kölsch is bready with a fruity middle and a slight floral finish. And it comes in a big ol’ growler.

$18/1.89 l growler

Barking Squirrel
Hop City Barking Squirrel Lager
Owner: Moosehead

Purchased in 2004, the Niagara Falls Brewing Co. was rebranded as Hop City, with a new tag line: “Craft with attitude.” Its flagship lager is sweet and toasty with a creamy head and a spicy, floral finish.

$2.75/473 ml can

Omission Pale Ale
Owner: Craft Beer Alliance and AB InBev

This hop-forward ale, with notes of grapefruit peel and a caramel backbone, is from a gluten-free brewery founded by the Craft Beer Alliance. Today AB InBev owns 32.2% of the business.

$15.95/six pack

Creemore Springs Kellerbier
Owner: Molson Coors

A rare Canadian example of a Franconian lager, it drops notes of caramel, zingy orange and a crisp floral bitterness. Creemore was bought in 2005, but Kellerbier remains a darling of beer snobs.

$2.80/473 ml can

Blanche De Chambly
Blanche de Chambly
Owner: Sapporo

Unfiltered and fantastically flavourful, this Belgian witbier packs a signature, one-two punch of Curacao orange peel and coriander.

$12.95/six bottles

Granville Island Brewing Co. Lion’s Winter Ale
Owner: Molson Coors

A creamy mix of vanilla, caramel and chocolate with a kick of earthy hops to balance the sweet ale. Try it with red meats, cheesecake or dark chocolate.

$12.95/six bottles

Shock Top
Shock Top Belgian White
Owner: AB InBev

Craft? Not even close. AB InBev launched Shock Top in 2009. The super bubbly brew tastes a bit like a Creamsicle—it’s all about the orange.

$2.35/473 ml

Pyramid breweries Apricot Ale
Owner: Cerveceria Costa Rica

Unlike Magic Hat, this apricot ale (also spiked with extract) has a tangy wheat beer base. Like Magic Hat, Pyramid was purchased by Cerveceria late last year.

$14.95/six pack